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Center for Khmer Studies

Exploring Conflict in the ASEAN region


mekong river For more than fifteen years the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) has successfully supported research, teaching and public service in the social sciences, arts and humanities in Cambodia and the Mekong region. To better strengthen the country’s cultural and educational institutions and further integrate Cambodian scholars into regional and international exchange, CKS launched a new series of workshops to develop the capabilities of current scholars, professionals and students. Two interrelated developments have shaped the scope of CKS’ attention in recent years.

First is the emergence from the economic insecurity and political instability of a generation of Asian scholars and professionals who embody what Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Past President, Dr. Thongchai Winichakul recognized in his 2014 Presidential address, as “one of the most recognizable features in the changing landscape of Asian studies in this post-Cold War era…the growing importance of Asia not only as the object of studies by the “first world” academia but also as the producer of knowledge.”

The second development is the growing interconnectedness of not only the world, but particularly of the ASEAN bloc, which is in the process of removing barriers to physical and economic movement across its member states’ common borders. This new chapter in the history of the Southeast Asian region marks a dramatic contrast to centuries of conflict and misunderstanding. These positive developments are not without their own challenges.

Attempts to manage, preempt, and resolve security and conflict and to pave the way toward a more stable and secure future take on increased importance in this new international climate, even as traditional issues such as cross-border trade and professional exchanges, resource management, transitional economies and sectarian violence themselves become more complex and require new tools and methodologies to manage them.

For the past several years, the CKS senior fellowship program, funded by the U.S Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Cultural Affairs and through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), has enabled American and Cambodian scholars to explore regional as well as interdisciplinary projects covering Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam on issues such as migration, religious beliefs, history and nationalism.

In addition, the CAORC multi-Country Research fellowship Program offers unique opportunities to U.S applicants to undertake comparative or cross-regional research in two or more countries outside of the United States whereby CKS provides scholars with institutional affiliation and access to its networks of researchers and partners in Cambodia and the region.

CKS’ successful management and execution of these programs situates the organization in a particularly good position to use its experience, its physical location in the epicenter of Southeast Asia, and its sophisticated team of staff and affiliated scholars to provide a program that brings together the very individuals who will be managing change in the region by providing them with the common tools and professional language to do so effectively. This program thus embraces both the growth of Asian scholarship and traditional training as well as the challenges of regional integration as Southeast Asia enters the 21st century.

Program Description

Exploring Conflict in the ASEAN Region is a program targeting mid-career professionals in the region that bridges their professional world with the scholarly one. With the support of the Ford Foundation and the Henri Luce Foundation, the program aims to engage Cambodians and other Southeast Asian scholars and practitioners through an intensive program of empirical depth and analytical rigor addressing conflicts and other challenges in Mainland Southeast Asia and thereby help them develop the tools necessary to become part of a dynamic network of researchers and decision-makers in the region.

The motivation for the program comes from specific requests by our Cambodian alumni and regional partners whose access to such training has been curtailed due to political, financial and time constrains. This short but intensive program is tailored for mid-career professionals who wish to develop their skills in order to have a greater positive impact throughout their careers.

Program objectives

With the current political and societal changes in Cambodia, the opening of Myanmar to the outside world and the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015, the Regional Program targets mid-career scholars, development professionals, and civil servants from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, who seek to deepen their analytical skills and critical thinking abilities with the goals of allowing them to improve their decision-making capacities as future agents of change within a dynamic growing regional network.

By doing so, we hope to broaden and deepen the universe of knowledge within the field of Southeast Asian scholarship and professional service by bringing together an important mix of intellectuals and practitioners to collaborate in producing and disseminating knowledge in and about the region.

Year 1 (2015) and Year 2 (2016):

The main purpose of the first two years is to lay the foundation of a regional program that will promote interstate cooperation between the five Mainland Southeast Asian countries and bridge the divides of the academia from the applied, professional policy world. We are hoping that this platform will be conducive to a greater understanding of regional differences, stimulate open debates and the creation of new opportunities for people working on similar issues to collaborate, publish their research findings and develop best practices. Year 1 (2015) of the Regional Program focused on cross-border and political conflicts.

Year 2 in turn will concentrate on environmental change and challenges that affect Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and often generates significant cross-border tensions that span the entire Mekong River Basin (MRB). The MRB is a fast-growing region with a troubled political history. Currently, the unique flow regime of the Mekong River with its seasonal variations in water level supports the livelihood of about 60 million people and more than a million living on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a biodiversity hotspot.

Starting from the Tibetan Plateau and flowing all the way to the Vietnam delta thus covering approximately 4,600 km, the hydrological system and ‘waterscape’ of the Mekong River are now being altered through large scale development projects, investments in hydroelectricity, over-fishing and irreversible changes in land use and land cover.

Multiple environmental challenges such as large-scale soil erosion, greater frequency and magnitude of changes in the climate, increase in land salinization as well as emerging water shortages face the region. These are in turn compounded by anthropogenic factors that include: deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, unregulated natural resource extraction of minerals and other primary products, and air and water contamination. As a result, these transformations pose a direct threat to food security in the region, which may generate major political, economic and social conflicts that will cross national boundaries.

CKS’ Ford Foundation and Henri Luce Foundation sponsored program in year two will focus on the food, water and energy nexus: three key interrelated dimensions of environmental change that capture the intersection between water, food and energy security within the MRB.

Year 3 (2017) of the program will be dedicated to examining the ASEAN Economic Community and trafficking; Year 4 (2018) will focus on Sectarian Violence and Cultural Conflict; Year 5 (2019 is the capstone year of the Program) will focus on ASEAN and the great powers (China and the U.S) and will feature a conference gathering all participants and instructors from the four preceding years to present their research findings and initiate peer reviews. CKS will publish the conference proceedings to make them available to scholars, policy makers and development professionals.

Program Format & Duration
Under the guidance of a Senior Instructor, each year fifteen participants will engage in theoretical and empirical analysis of cross-border issues relating to explicit issues of environmental conflict within the ASEAN region. The program will entail two intensive one-week sessions, in August and November 2016, comprising coursework, seminar discussions, group exercises, applied skills training and individual research. Between those sessions, participants will work in their home countries on a chosen research project. This year, training will take place in Cambodia with the first week scheduled in Phnom Penh and the second in Siem Reap. We are currently exploring support for and the feasibility and program effectiveness of incorporating extra site visits in subsequent years of the program.

Week 1 will take place in Phnom Penh in August and will be dedicated to participatory lecture/seminars, work assignments, group exercises and presentations. Participants will use assigned reading materials on a range of subjects relevant to environmental change, ASEAN cross-border and livelihood security as preparation for active participation in lectures and seminars. At the end of Week 1, the participants will also have received training in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and quantitative and qualitative research methodologies.

The Regional Instructor will pay particular attention to possible discrepancies in language proficiencies and will ensure that the participants, both men and women, can use their full potential. To this end, the program curriculum will be tailored to better respond to the professional backgrounds, research projects and expectations of the participants and will use a variety of teaching methodologies (lectures, group discussions, guest speakers, participants’ presentations…). The Regional Instructor will also play a key role in mitigating potential disputes between participants in case specific issues of border conflicts raise strong disagreements.

In the interim between Week 1 and Week 2, participants will use their knowledge of analytical tools to conduct their individual research project focusing on a subject of ASEAN environmental conflict in their home country. Participant research projects should be realistically framed, with clear and achievable goals so that the participants can use his/ her knowledge, contacts and skills gained from the program, to complete it successfully. In the course of these two and a half months, they will be in regular communication with the Program Instructor, as well as with guest lecturers and fellow program participants.

Week 2 will take place in Siem Reap in November, 2016. Participants will resume attending seminars on broad issues of food, water and energy security threats in the region and working in groups while expanding their knowledge of advanced research methods and monitoring and evaluation tools. Week 2 will also provide the opportunity for presenting the results of individual research projects and culminate with discussion of continuing regional collaboration and intensification of cross-border research networks.

Anticipated Outcomes

Participants will have developed their ability to better formulate research projects, use data collection methods, and develop their critical inquiry and analytical skills to improve their ability to undertake useful research. Research ultimately aims to increase knowledge to better document, understand, and initiate positive changes to current practices.

The participants will have a better understanding of the process of monitoring and evaluation and an improved grasp of key practical tools to determine how a research project or policy is successful in fulfilling its intended objectives. These skills will allow both scholars and professionals to ask relevant questions, assess progress, identify problems and make necessary adjustments that will help improve strategic decision-making, accountability and the impact of their work.

The two weeks of intensive engagement will result in the production of preliminary white papers based on both individual research conducted during the interim period and discussions and critiques that will take place in the course of week 2. The white papers produced will be authoritative reports or advisory documents, which seek to help scholars, professionals and civil servants better understand issues, solve problems or make better-informed decisions.

Program Evaluation

The program will be evaluated internally by a member of the CKS Ad Hoc Regional Program Committee, and externally by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) located in Siem Reap. A Cambodia-based non-governmental organization, CPCS specializes in the field of peace building and conflict transformation in Asia and runs a two-year MA program in Applied Conflict Transformation in partnership with Paññasāstra University of Cambodia.


This course is especially designed for mid-career professionals at academic and government institutions and the development community in mainland Southeast Asia. We have encouraged scholars, development professionals, and civil servants, particularly those involved in the development of social and economic policy to apply. We expect that each year the program will gather fifteen participants from the following six selected countries: Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam while maintaining gender balance.